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Train Travel in France

trainstationWhile renting a car and driving in France can be a great way to get around if you are planning a leisurely route with many stops along the way, train travel is by far the fastest and easiest way to get around the country.
Trains link France with every country in Europe, usually through Paris or Lille. For regional travel within France, traveling by rail is also your best bet as inter-regional bus services in France are extremely limited. Buses are used extensively within regions (like states in the U.S.) or départements (like U.S. counties)—especially in rural areas with limited train lines—but they can be few and far between, and you are almost always better off opting to take the train.
Especially with France’s high-speed TGV, taking the train can often be even faster than air travel in France. Plus, while flying will require you to worry about transportation to and from the airport, train stations are almost without exception located in city centers, saving you time – you don’t need to leave an hour earlier to get there, and you don’t need to arrive two hours before the train leaves!

High Speed Trains: The TGV

If you are traveling between major cities in France, the TGV (France’s high-speed train) links Paris with other urban centers across France. Because the TGV travels in excess of 200 mph, these trains can whisk you from Paris all the way to the South of France in just three hours (driving would take at least eight). It should be noted that some TGV stations were built specifically to accommodate these trains, and are not in the city center – Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are examples of this. But it’s never too far away, and easily accessible regardless. Look for city names followed by “-TGV” on this map for those that have dedicated stations.
If you are traveling from London to Paris (or vice versa), the Eurostar is a high-speed option that links the two capitals. Thalys trains links Paris’ Gare du Nord with Brussels and Amsterdam (Paris to Amsterdam takes a little over three hours!).
While taking these rail rockets is a sure-fire way to save you lots of time, you will have to pay a higher price. However, the savings in euros evens out in the end, in terms of both time and hassle. The same journey in a local train can take 3 to 4 times as long and involves switching trains, layovers and less comfortable seats.
If you have purchased a Eurail pass the TGV will cost you extra fees, but you will still enjoy a huge discount over non-pass holders.

Regional and Local Trains

If you are buying tickets for train travel within France while IN France, you may have to deal with purchasing your tickets in a foreign language, which can always be a challenge for those who don’t speak any French. Write down the names of the cities if you are not sure how to pronounce them; if you do this for train times, too, make sure to use the 24-hour clock (1PM = 13.00, for example).
If you’re in any decent-sized town, chances are you’ll have an SNCF boutique at your disposal, as well. SNCF boutiques can be a less stressful alternative to queueing up at the train station with hundreds of other travelers. Here you wait in a line, but when it’s your turn you’re usually seated with an agent who speaks a bit of English, and more importantly who is trained in creating train itineraries. They’ll tell you all of your options, instead of just trying their best to get you on the next train.
Keep in mind that the French ticket systems will often sell you the next available train ticket default, which often means a high-speed TGV ticket. If you are trying to go the budget route, you may want to opt out of taking the TGV and take a regional/local train (that makes more stops and takes longer) to save some money.
Regional trains in France are operated by the government controlled SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français), which has unique train lines that serve different routes in France.
Intercity Routes
Corail is the brand name SNCF has assigned to non-TGV inter-city service in France. Corail runs train service between cities of all sizes in France.
Regional Routes
TER (Transport Express Régional) is the brand name SNCF has assigned to regional trains, often the trains operating within a single region or department of France. Many train stations in France that are too small to be served by Corail or TGV service in France are served by the TER service. A quick note for when you’re listening to train station announcements – each letter in TER is pronounced, and it’s going to sound like “tay-euh-air.”

Night Trains

International routes and train journeys that take more than 7 hours will often have night train schedules. For example, if you are trying to get from Barcelona to Nice, you will need to take an overnight train, with a change on the border. Night trains are also perfect way to cover longer distances on a budget, as spending the night en-route prevents you from having to spend money on a hotel.
>>Read about taking the night train and other options for Getting from Barcelona to Nice
Trains generally leave in the evening and arrive in the morning, though exact departure and arrival times will depend on the length of the journey. Overnight trains are a popular replacement for air travel, in that they allow you to travel long-distance without losing a day.
Sleeping compartments aboard trains vary by country, but most overnight trains have several levels of service. The cheapest fares are usually for standard seats, which can be uncomfortable for sleeping. Increasing in price, multilevel couchette compartments that sleep 4-6 people in fold-out beds are an economical way to get good night’s sleep. Finally, private compartments for families, couples, or individuals are usually the most expensive class of service, but also offer the most privacy and the most comfortable sleeping conditions.

Classes of Service

Classes of service vary greatly depending on train type. Obviously, TGV trains have the highest level of service in both first and second class, while TER trains have the lowest. But it’s not like you’re going to be in with the chickens if you buy a second-class ticket; it’s completely doable. Save your money for the fun stuff once you get there.
On overnight trains, there are usually different classes associated with whether or not you want to get a sleeper car or not. Depending on how soundly you want to sleep, the extra money on these trains may or may not be worth it to you. I recommend going as high as your budget will allow; you have a better chance of being with people who are not sketchy or stinky. Sorry, but it’s true.

Getting Tickets

For those traveling through France by train as part of a longer European trip are probably best off purchasing a Eurail pass, which will allow you passage on most trains between cities in France at no extra cost, and will only charge you a small additional fee for transportation on the TGV.
There are a variety of Eurail passes available for non-Europe residents and Europe residents, which offer unlimited train travel for a varying amounts of time.
If you are purchasing single train-leg tickets, than you can find schedules and purchase tickets through Rail Europe or SNCF websites.
If you are traveling from the UK to a destination in France (Paris or otherwise), there is a helpful and info-packed website called the Man in Seat 61, where you can find information on purchasing tickets, schedules and more.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t forget to validate your ticket at the train station before boarding the train! There are yellow machines at the entrance to each track. Bon voyage!
For more specific travel information, check out these helpful links from yours truly:
Getting around France
How to plan a trip to France
Map of France
France first-time visitor’s guide

Photo by Redjar flickr